THE FIVE YEARS between these two Holyrood elections have been among the most turbulent in modern British history. 2016 brought Brexit and three years of Corbynism, the European Research Group and the so-called “People’s Vote”. Then came coronavirus, an unprecedented shock to the economic orthodoxies of global capitalism. Among all that, we’ve had uninterrupted scandals: Holyrood alone has seen drug deaths, the care home crisis, the SQA debacle and the Salmond-Sturgeon split. Westminster’s scandals are too numerous to name.
Now, compare the above to the Scottish election results. No change – or change so piddling as to make mentioning it seem pedantic. Holyrood’s elite was effectively reproduced intact. The Tories literally remained on 31 seats, despite Douglas Ross’s widely panned campaign. Scottish Labour, despite a widely praised campaign, were the biggest losers with a two-seat deficit. Conversely, the Greens were superficially the biggest winners, picking up two, but in post-Greta Thunberg times (and considering the possibilities of the indy list vote) even that looks a lot like stasis.
In brutal summary, the battlelines of 2014 have remained intact. The national question splits Scotland roughly in two, and voter behaviour was largely a consequence of rival fears. Unionists voted tactically, often regardless of party affiliation, to limit the scope of a pro-independence majority. Pro-independence voters likewise chose to preserve the status quo, in fear of collapsing under Johnson’s Conservative hegemony at Westminster. And fear worked a charm: turnouts boomed, and Holyrood’s party structure survived unharmed.
Perhaps, to paraphrase The Leopard, everything needed to change so everything could stay the same. People in power have always known that they can rally to the flag (in Scotland’s case, the two flags) in times of turbulence. Still, it’s remarkable how little policies, campaigns and world-shaking events seemed to matter.
The headlines have been dominated by talk of a constitutional crisis. Certainly, there is a secure pro-independence majority, even if the SNP narrowly missed a majority. And the regional list vote (the most accurate weathervane of voter preferences) reached a 50 percent pro-independence threshold. That gives a solid moral mandate for a referendum. It’s a far bigger endorsement than Cameron received to start the Brexit referendum; bigger also than Johnson’s mandate to conclude it and “get Brexit done”.
But there’s no buzz of excitement, despite liberal efforts to dragoon everyone into a frenzy over the Most Diverse Parliament Ever. Instead, among those who are most committed to independence, there’s a feeling of having been here before. Mandates come, mandates go. The absence of one has never been the problem. The problems are both of structure (an economic case that’s built on fantasy neoliberalism) and agency (a Yes leadership unwilling to gamble on constitutional conflict).
There is thus every possibility that we’ll be here again in five years’ time. Major events will pass. The poor will go on dying early from the diseases of poverty. Working class kids will get working class jobs. Then an election will roll round, and we’ll be asked to vote for the status quo to stop Johnson’s/Sturgeon’s madness. The alternative is now to call everyone’s bluff, and hope that a pretend leadership will be spurred into life by the power of belief.